LIVINGSTON, N.J. - They used to be everywhere there were Jews. Mikvahs, ritual purification pools used by observant Jewish women, have been considered so important to Jewish communities that even a sacred Torah could be sold to build one.
But the practice of "going to the mikvah" - which involves removing all clothes, dunking oneself in water from a natural source, and praying - began fading away in the mid-20th century as many Orthodox Jewish immigrants assimilated and their children became less observant. The advent of feminism also colored women's attitudes about the ritual, which is performed each month after menstruation.
In the last decade, though, more mikvahs have been built, and many, like Mikvah Chana, which opened last December in Livingston, are downright luxurious compared with their predecessors.
Mikvah Chana would have stunned Jewish grandmothers of yore. It offers fluffy towels and robes, a soothing fountain, a spiral staircase, a dome-shaped ceiling, and even selections of kosher chocolates on the way out.
"Mikvahs in the past were in basements of synagogues, and dingy," said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum of Chabad of Livingston. "Today's mikvahs have really gone to a whole new level. They are presented as top of the line, prettier than people's homes - that's saying a lot for a Livingston mikvah - and presented with dignity and importance."
Indeed, many of the new mikvahs have unashamedly used their spa-like features for publicity as their numbers have risen from 200 nationally in the 1960s to more than 400 now, according to the Web site mikvah.org.
Traditions for mikvah use are said to stem from a passage in the Book of Leviticus, and are commonly explained this way: A woman's period represents death, in that it's a loss of a chance to conceive a child. And in Judaism, personal contact with death - say, at cemeteries - makes a person spiritually impure.
"It's not something that is easily understood. It's supra-rational - beyond simple understanding," said Rabbi Moshe Kasinetz, the founding rabbi of Suburban Torah Center, a modern Orthodox shul in Livingston. "But when you do it, you kind of feel that you're coming back to the source. Water is life."
Mikvahs aren't used just by women after their periods. People also go before getting married, before converting to Judaism and just before the solemn holiday of Yom Kippur. Many Hasidic men go each day before prayer.
The way many speak of the experience bears similarities to how Christians speak of baptism:
"There's something special about being in that water when you submerge, that you really feel a rebirth," said Joyce Weinberger, who lives in Livingston and is part of the town's large modern Orthodox community.
Most mikvahs rely on donations. There are user fees, too: A one-time visit to Mikvah Chana costs $25.
Why so many new and luxurious mikvahs? Mikvah experts point to increasing spirituality among Jews, and to the prolific mikvah-building efforts of the Orthodox Chabad movement, which tries to bring Jewish traditions to less observant Jews.
The reasons help explain why a small but growing number of less observant Jews have begun going to mikvahs. In Livingston recently, a women's group from Temple B'nai Abraham, a synagogue composed of Conservative and Reform Jews, toured Mikvah Chana.
They heard Orthodox women describe mikvah habits, and the structured sex life that comes with them: Married Orthodox couples abstain for the five to seven days of a woman's period and then for seven more days after bleeding has stopped. Then the woman goes to the mikvah, and the couple can have sex again.
"It's like a new honeymoon," said Toba Grossbaum, an Orthodox woman who spoke to the group.
The women listened to her politely. Some who were no longer of child-bearing years and who wouldn't have dreamed of visiting mikvahs regularly when they were, said they have gone to a mikvah just once before their wedding or a daughter's wedding - and found it fulfilling.
Karen Frank, a Conservative Jew in Livingston, gave reasons for mikvah trips that she knows many Orthodox would reject: say, for a sense of spiritual purification after a divorce, after chemotherapy, after children leave the home, after receiving a Ph.D.
"The mikvah can be used by us for making a separation between any two states," said Frank, 56, who said that as a young adult, she, like many other non-Orthodox American Jews, found mikvah rituals offensive.
"Understanding it from a very feminist point of view, I felt like the whole concept of impurity was demeaning to me," she said.
Then, later in life after she began keeping kosher, she learned more about mikvahs and changed her mind, she said.
Like many women on the tour interviewed, Marilyn Rosenbaum of Livingston was unsure of whether she would go: "People who really believe in it, it's very important to them. They get a spiritual lift. We don't know if we would get it if we came, though."
(Jeff Diamant writes for The Star Ledger in Newark, N.J.)
c. 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved.